The term alimony comes from the Latin word alimōnia (“nourishment, sustenance”, from alere, “to nourish”), from which also alimentary (of, or relating to food, nutrition, or digestion) and the Scots law concept of aliment, and was a rule of sustenance to assure the wife’s lodging, food, clothing, and other necessities after divorce.Liberalization of divorce laws occurred in the 19th century, but divorce was only possible in cases of marital misconduct. As a result, the requirement to pay alimony became linked to the concept of fault in the divorce. Alimony to wives was paid because it was assumed that the marriage, and the wife’s right to support, would have continued but for the misbehavior of the husband.
Ending alimony on divorce would have permitted a guilty husband to profit from his own misconduct. In contrast, if the wife committed the misconduct, she was considered to have forfeited any claim to ongoing support. However, during the period, parties could rarely afford alimony, and so it was rarely awarded by courts. As husbands’ incomes increased, and with it the possibility of paying alimony, the awarding of alimony increased, generally because a wife could show a need for ongoing financial support, and the husband had the ability to pay. No-fault divorce led to changes in alimony. Whereas spousal support was considered a right under the fault-based system, it became conditional under the no-fault approach.
According to the American Bar Association, marital fault is a “factor” in awarding alimony in 25 states and the District of Columbia. Permanent alimony began to fall out of favor, as it prevented former spouses from beginning new lives, though in some states (e.g., Massachusetts, Mississippi, and Tennessee), permanent alimony awards continued, but with some limitations.Alimony moved beyond support to permitting the more dependent spouse to become financially independent or to have the same standard of living as during the marriage or common law marriage, though this was not possible in most cases.
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